Sustainable Prefab Housing: Cheryl Atkinson

By October 15, 2017 No Comments

Architecture professor Cheryl Atkinson is one of four Ryerson faculty members behind Ecostudio, which partnered with the Endeavour Centre to design and build an 1100-square-foot sustainable prototype stacked townhouse unit called ZeroHouse.

What inspired ZeroHouse?
Our architecture students have had some success at the international Race to Zero design competition that stresses the importance of a holistic approach to sustainable urban design. Sustainable design is about human wellness and community wellness as well as saving energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We wanted to make architecturally excellent, affordable, housing that’s an alternative to both high-rise and low-rise sprawl.

Since ZeroHouse is prefabricated, some assembly is required to construct it. Why have prefabs had such a bad reputation in the past?
Prefabrication has a fairly long history in the 20th Century from Kit Houses that were sold through Sears, to the Usonian Houses promoted by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s and ’40s. The material and building envelopes at the time were not conducive to energy efficiency or longevity. Ultimately, they were adapted to post-WWII mobile homes and the connotations that come with that—cheap construction, toxic emissions, and trailer parks. Nowadays, there is an appetite for precision prefabricated homes that incorporate sophisticated building technology and high-calibre design. Popular magazines and websites like Dwell have also renewed an interest in modernism and affordable alternatives to custom houses.

Communities comprised of mid-rise ZeroHomes could help fill the “missing middle” of housing that’s suitable for a range of family sizes. (Rendering: Matthew Ferguson)

Is it fair to call ZeroHouse a “tiny home”?
At 1100-square-feet, ours is too big to be considered a ‘tiny home’—but it is still half the size of an average 2600-square-foot American home. It is not a fixed prototype in any case—it can scale up or down. We were trying to create a home that was suitable for a family rather than the tiny condos  that young home buyers have to contend with. However, while it’s space efficient like a condo and attached on three sides, it has the better daylight and cross ventilation that comes with a free-standing house.

Interior of the ZeroHouse sustainable housing prototype. (Renderings: Matthew Ferguson)

Exterior of the ZeroHouse sustainable housing prototype. (Renderings: Matthew Ferguson)

What’s the biggest challenge facing adoption of these types of homes?
I think it is getting industry up to speed in developing greater access to prefabrication facilities and educating developers and builders about alternative construction methods. Industry is slow to change the way it builds. I don’t think the market is an impediment. People are open to sustainable design and denser community-oriented housing if it means they can afford to live in urban communities with proximity to work and play.

ZeroHouse, an 1100-square foot, net-zero energy, stacked townhouse prototype, was recently displayed at Toronto’s EDITdx design festival. (Photo: Shane MacInnes)

What’s happening with ZeroHouse in the near future?
It will be shipped to the Town of Blue Mountains and re-built once and for all on foundations for its new owner. She is an enthusiastic participant in this venture and will allow us to monitor and report on its performance over time. The next steps are to build another iteration for research and permanent public display at the BRE Innovation Park at The Living City Campus Centre at the Kortright Centre for Conservation in Vaughan, Ontario.

Will we ever see entire ZeroHouse communities?
I hope so. There is definitely a “missing middle” of mid-rise housing. Mid-rise housing is already significantly more energy efficient that single family homes and wood-frame construction has a significantly lower carbon footprint than high-rises. All we need to do that are a better envelope, façade integrated photovoltaics, and affordability—which are all possible through prefabrication.